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‘We are seeking a higher standard’: J-schools can improve newsroom diversity

Julian Rodriguez is a broadcast professor at the University of Texas at Arlington

Issues spurring recent changes and pushbacks in journalism aren’t new, said Julian Rodriguez, a broadcast professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. They’ve simply become “more prominent because of how we perceive and understand inequality today.”

“We have today’s newsroom heated discussions not necessarily because journalism is in decline but because we are seeking a higher standard,” said Rodriguez, who is also the faculty advisor of the Hispanic Media Initiative. “And higher standards demand higher-level thinking, strategies benefiting the whole, and less the one.”

As newsrooms continue to address racial inequities, the Journalism Institute reached out to journalism schools by email to learn how academia is confronting the same issues in classrooms and in student media. We are featuring Rodriguez’s answers this week.

Why do you think the industry has been so slow in addressing racial inequities within?

Rodriguez: If we lack leadership sensitive to the value of diversity and inclusion, we can’t easily advance in the inclusion of diverse voices in the newsroom. Most attempts to diversify newsrooms are explicit, on paper, but implicit forces still rule decision-making today. Furthermore, newsrooms continue to lack professional development and advancement systems for journalists, a trend found in newsrooms across the nation, regardless of language.

Do you believe that journalism schools are doing enough to encourage diversity both in terms of faculty and students? 

Rodriguez: Latino and African American faculty/students are underrepresented; we remain well below national and state racial/ethnic demographic distributions. For instance, Hispanic/Latinos represent less than 10% of faculty at some Texas institutions of higher education, a state where almost 40% of the population is Hispanic.

Although some journalism schools around the nation are investing in the creation of robust and inclusive programs, we have not seen real investment in the creation of, say, bilingual journalism programs until the last few years.

How can journalism schools help reshape the industry to become more inclusive?

Rodriguez: It must start with actively cultivating, recruiting, and promoting Latino and African American faculty, followed by meaningful investment in the creation of journalism programs that work together with the industry. Without question, public-private partnerships are effective vehicles helping address diversity issues in newsrooms. In the case of the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), we have created long-lasting relationships with the industry, improved curriculum, and graduated competitive and mindful students who are understanding of minority issues.

Can you share examples of hiring managers or organizations that are doing it right?

Rodriguez: One good example is NBC-Universal-Telemundo; the company is fully invested in addressing diversity and inclusion issues, both at the national and local levels. Their impact is remarkable: NBC and Telemundo newsrooms share resources, they are always present and involved at professional conferences like the ones held by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) and the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), and they partner with universities across the nation to educate, cultivate, and hire journalists with diverse backgrounds.

UTA has been partnering with NBC-Universal-Telemundo for more than a decade, and we recently joined the Telemundo University program, a series of workshops exclusively targeting bilingual journalism students interested in news production and multiplatform distribution. In addition, UTA is part of the Telemundo News Service (TNS) and our Hispanic students have the ability to produce and distribute news reports to every Telemundo station in the nation.

What do the recent changes and pushbacks in the industry mean for the future of newsroom culture?

Rodriguez: These are not new to journalism; If at all, they have simply become more prominent because of how we perceive and understand inequality today. There was a time when The New York Times was abuzz with male journalists smoking in the newsroom, that’s well in the past. We have today’s newsroom heated discussions not necessarily because journalism is in decline but because we are seeking a higher standard, and higher standards demand higher-level thinking, strategies benefiting the whole, and less the one.

We can expect, and should demand, scrutiny from our colleagues; whether we are executives or those chasing the beat on the street, we must all seek and listen to our common humanity. If a media company can’t withstand scrutiny by journalists, then we should think twice about the kind of content this company is pressing.

How do you think COVID-19 will affect diversity in newsrooms?

Rodriguez: Every crisis disproportionately affects minority groups more, and COVID-19 is an example par excellence. By deduction, minority journalists will be among the first ones to suffer the consequences of the pandemic given all known statistics and the number of external pressures they face: unemployment, income disparity, poverty, preexisting health conditions, access to healthcare, etc. It is common for diversity and inclusion initiatives to take a back seat during times of crisis; survival mode triggers executive tribal instincts. And who is a media executive in today’s America? We can only hope it is someone who believes diversity and inclusion should always be upfront and not in an archived folder in the Human Resources office.

Read more from professors on how J-schools can help newsrooms:

“From my perspective – as a professor and when I was a student decades ago – J-schools, albeit imperfect, were not the main problem,” said Robert Hernandez, USC Annenberg School of Journalism associate professor of professional practice. “Every year we graduate talented, diverse voices … We routinely hear we need to hire in our industry, but these incredible students aren’t given those opportunities.”

“There’s always more that can be done,” said Miya Williams Fayne, assistant professor in the Department of Communications at California State University, Fullerton. “Journalism schools can intentionally recruit from more high schools in low-income neighborhoods and create summer programs for students of color that will help strengthen the pipeline.”

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